Swinside: Stone Sentinels of Past Centuries


Swinside Stone Circle, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Cumbria

Travelling, Le Gringalet has called me to Lancashire and Cumberland in my cause;
My horse lifts me high upon heath and mighty on mound
Through lofty lowlands and limp inlets sandy on Furness fallow.
Climbing now with Morcambe bay massive on my left shoulder
I soon rise to fields thrashed by winds, throttling life and thrusting sheep against walls
Where now we reach a circle stoney, standing guard sternly:
Swinside, the sunkenkirk, swept by swarming blasts, many stones sleeping close to the ground.

When I walked here last on the warmest of days under King Richard
These stones still stood circular and knowledge was dim as to their purpose.
And nothing now has changed save the passing of the years from one new one to the next.
Yes, more of this henge no longer hangs but hugs the soil where wind has pushed it
But whether warm to the ground or still windswept and upright
These robust stones remain in their entirety from my day and before.

What celebration have they seen in the years they stood?
What flushed face of youth feebly withstood young love here?
What women grew round and with birth gave the earth?
What men fought fights for far-flung tribal rites?
Did Romans see, stare and set apart?
Did Norman knights ennoble themselves through nuance of connection?
Did woman out of wedlock worry in tears for her child?

These stone sentinels of past centuries have seen it all:
The clasped hands of heaving lovers; the glistening eyes of sorrow;
The last sight of a land once loved by men away to foreign wars;
The coming and going of the seasons, from sweet to sweat;
The growing old of children, as childhood became but yesterday
And men grew weary, weeping for the youth they’d squandered.

Swindside is a site of yesterdays, steward of memories and holding them in its silent grasp:
If we could know its secrets we would without melancholy accept our fate
But yet the passage of time slips through our fingers and from our feeble grasp
And with it we see our lives pass by as particles of sand sieved with fumbling futility.
Swinside with certainty in its silent ways sways us to reflection
On how we lead our lives.

As we journey on our way, take care;
Our errors cause much pain.
But if through all our acts we’re fair
Our honour will remain.

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Cumbria, English History, English myths and legends, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, Stone Circles, Touring Britain, Touring England

The Cittie beneath the Ocean sits and sleeps


image of sign at Dunwich cliffs

A simple sign reveals the futility of man’s struggle against the seas at Dunwich, Suffolk

Flood flow and fluvium flings the shingle shore sharply in the waves
As here at Dunwich my horse has homed me thus.
But behold the sea! Battering swells have swung the swarming throng
That I knew well when Bigod was bigging and boasting way back then
And cast them to the corners of the earth leaving but the calm of beach and boat!
For where once was town there now be but waves.

Image of JMW Turner's painting of Dunwich

Dunwich as captured by JMW Turner – when this picture was painted, the wreck of Dunwich was still returning 2 MPs to Parliament even though a handful of people lived in the constituency.

Dunwich, greatest of the citties of the East, a Suffolk surety
Against the predations of France and proudly preaching its excellence
At those pretenders Orford, Blythburgh and Walton – sea towns, sea men and sea bound.
If I listen, I can hear the homesteads and high spirits of merchant, monk and merry man!
If I cast my eye it walks down webs of wicker and wattle, warming on women who weave in the yards!
There was power here once – parliament itself was propped by Clerk and Brantham;
Precursors of a poisoned politik portrayed as but rotten by 1832.

What wrought the stones and crushed them to cobbles clacking?
The sea! The German Ocean, the great North Sea! Smooth swell but swarming.
This sea looks brown as is moves in shallow sands murmuring;
Voices cry from its depths, bells toll to unseen ears, unhearing now and unholy.
Storms moved with menace mightily down this coast and men did quake but to behold them!

Defoe knew well how windmills burned in woe as winds whipped sails beyond endurance.
But the mighty winds of Maurus mocked the men before his time
And more blows too did the cheeks of God bustle forth in His anger at our vanity!

Image of old Dunwich

Dunwich collapses into the sea; today nothing remains of this church

He shut off the river and rendered town rudderless;
Churches were cast to the earth in Middle Age and modern time:
Slowly they succumbed: St James; St Peter’s; St Nicholas; All Saints –
And more! Street by street, the sea sucked away the sand and slurped up the people.

Today a monastery in ruins stands upon the cliffs marking time, making friends.
It knows that like its brothers long ago its boldness will be but bluster
When the waves come to call one last time to waft it to the waters.
Look closely at those cliffs and clear you’ll see the bones of cloistermen
Long gone from Greyfriars, growing from the soil, groaning in lament
Of a time when land loyally lapped their lair, a haven high.

Yet for years all was not lost! Young was its spirit as it clung to old privilege!
In arrogance, this undersea urchin still with unction sent its London members
Till with Great Reform even this last vestige of its vain power was vanquished
In the name of democracy. And duped thus Dunwich died – a footnote to a finer time.
Now, a few houses on a street end sit, stumps of a place once superior now silent
As an English village supping beer in sleepy Suffolk while, just beyond, the old cittie sings
Among the fish, the flounder and the foaming horse.

When we with vanity talk of power
And at our mirrors crow
Just simply think of Dunwich tower
And know which way you’ll go.

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, English Counties, English History, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Suffolk, Touring Britain, Touring England

Iconography at Ickleton illuminates the passing of the hours


Image of Ickleton church

Ickleton Church, Cambridgeshire showing cantilevered arm on spire holding bell

And so with summer comes Zephyrus soothing warm
from the west as I on Gringolet to Ickleton go
In Cambridgeshire, calming as I carve my way
through Essex easily on my errand searching.
A singular spire with suspended bell sounds
And later windows let light within
On earlier ecstasy lost till that empty day
Forty years ago when fire freed paintings
From a plastered prison put there by puritans
To save the soul and salvage it from popery.
But truth will trick out of any tainted cage
And here on walls full thick are wonders for the wayfarer:
The last supper seating saints on bounteous board,
The betrayal where brutally He was brought down;
Andrew sainted on a saltire steady, the martyrdom
of Peter depicted perfectly and St Laurence too;
Our Lord in flagellation not fearing for his fate
and then with cross our Christ cries in crucifixion.

Image of the doom painting, Ickleton church, Cambridgeshrie

The astonishing doom painting at Ickleton Church, Cambridgeshire. Most of the painting has long since disappeared but a particular feature of this image is a bare-breasted Mary (left) – a sign of supplication.

But raise your eyes now to that Chancel rich and rare:
A doom painting dominates but delights
For here is Mary bare-breasted in blatant supplication –
Find this in other church, a challenge to chasten
All but the most patient of travellers in our land;

A church here do not miss –
Walls and features grand.
There are few here such as this
That really come to hand.

 

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Filed under Cambridgeshire, English Landscape, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring Britain, Touring England, Uncategorized

In Devon banks down darkest lanes, bench ends beguiling


Bench end showing Death at Abbotsham Church

Death waits at Abbotsham – a reminder to all who sit in churches and elsewhere that their time will come

In different counties different downs roll deep their view to unravel, and so it was in Devonshire I rode on good Le Gringalet in search of things distinctive to pass away my hours.

Here is a most green of counties, a shire of verdant vibrancy in normal times yet cast brown by our long winter, spent as it was indoors before flame and fire avoiding of the freeze without. Never had I seen this county thus before yet clear it was before me now – and cold.

No ruby red, no cream upon the scone nor cheese crusty set upon my trencher. So into darker fields Le Gringalet led me towards two old parishes I thought I knew me well, named Abbotsham and High Bickington. What changes here since last I rode with Arthur in warmer days, wafting through lands and away on our hunting!

Abbotsham now by Appledore is closer, accreted such by dwellings that its once famed views of Torridge’s effluxion have now but eased below the eaves of roof tops many. Yet that church still it stands though starkly, so afflicted as it is by the varied violations of Victorian scrapers. But inside, what wares to while away the surface of your eyes!

This church, most charmless and cheap from outside yet once within giveth of its gifts with generosity unbounded: a bevy of bench-ends becoming and becalming at one and the same time. Look here at Death, his scythe he settles on we see. And there a workman wrapped forever in a woven bracket carved from wood. On another, Our Lord laughed at by later vandals is defaced upon the cross while too another bench blows mischief at some bounder riding backwards on his bay.

Bench ends are here distinctive while high above old faces beam, fragile survivors of all the worst of favours that those in Victoria’s reign could through upon their fame…

So let us move inland now to Old Devon where country folk, changed though they have, speak calmly as in all centuries they have and as, with God’s grace, they shall in future do. Let us ride out to High Bickington, remote and blowy on its rising ground bold standing in its grip of green damp grasping.

Here is a church much as I remembered it! A church charming and cheery despite the cheese of green decay which now impregnates its stones. In this church silent you can sit and hear the wind, a-feared as God Himself intended by the howling of the wind which did in centuries past cast down the spire of Norwich on St Maurus day.

In this damp room of sanctuary sleepy let settle your eyes in the gloom and touch those things my fingers brushed in centuries gone by. A sad remnant of a decorated carving – a rood screen perhaps long gone? Glass glistening and gold in places growing older and more faint by the years as Godless and unholy men predate the world without.

Yet more bench ends beckon and these beguile as well they should. Chanting singers sweetly sound in silence, four in a row; on another a Landsckecht, loosely ribboned loiters ready to work for whosoever wafts coin his way. Headless creatures hunted by the horrid in puritan times are hacked to faceless now, their forms only faring better through lack of subsequent protrusion. And finally, chance a man from China? No – this praying penitent points palms upwards as pigtail pony-like points back; a headdress of more humble times harks in the silence of the stones and tiles.

Let us leave these places now to sleep some more and centuries see out. It saddens me to think them sentinels of a silent age but still they stand and stoutly too, carrying their message to newer people long after I have left these lands and am but dust upon the earth.

In fields which still to me are there

from times when last I walked

I visited them once again to stare

And still to me they talked

Up in the roof space, an old face looks down at Abbotsham

Up in the roof space, an old face looks down at Abbotsham

Bench end Abbotsham

At Abbotsham, one of a number of such designs in other churches in Devon – a man bent double for all time

Primitive face carvings on a bench end at Abbotsham, Devon

Primitive face carvings on a bench end at Abbotsham, Devon

Image of the font at Abbotsham

Wonderfully carved fluted font at Abbotsham, Devon

Image of Death on a bench end at Abbotsham

Death at Abbotsham – the scythe had long since gone although parts of it remain if you look carefully

Image of Death on bench end at Abbotsham church

Here you can see the fuller bench end at Abbotsham, showing the design above Death.

Image of bench end at Abbotsham church showing instruments of the Passion

This image shows craftsmens’ tools carved into a bench end at Abbotsham. These may be connected to the Passion

Image of a bench end at Abbotsham church

Interesting curved forms on a bench end at Abbotsham

Image showing Norman door at High Bickington

The ancient Norman doorway at High Bickington Church, Devon

Image of early bench end at High Bickington Church

This bench end appears to have been cut into pieces – there are two other portions elsewhere in the church

Image of defaced bench end at High Bickington

A damaged bench end, probably defaced in the Puritan period at High Bickington

Image of Another animal bench end at High Bickington

Another damaged animal, headless.

Singers on a bench end at High Bickington

This image shows four singers. The “feathers” emerging from their mouths represent singing.

image of Landscknecht bench end at High Bickington

An image of a renaissance German mercenary or landsknecht. It is interesting that the person who carved this must have travelled abroad.

image of mediaeval carving at High Bickington

This fragment is all that remains of a much larger earlier piece. Nothing else remains at the church

image of The font, High Bickington

This wonderful font has an attractive ropework base and classic early mediaeval decoration.

image of man in pigtail on bench end at High Bickington

This image is said to represent someone from China but in fact the headdress is late mediaeval.

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Filed under British Landscape, Devonshire, English Counties, English History, English Landscape, Gawain and the Green Knight, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, King Arthur, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring Britain, Touring England

Castell Dinas Emrys – Ambrosius reborn


 

View of Dinas Emrys

Through Logres and across the crowing hills from Camelot, le Gringalet takes me deep into Gwynedd. Here, paths peter out in passes steep and the roads which you rely on rise up into the mountains to disappear in the mists, mounds and moss. And it is just here, when the world seems but a whisper that the warriors of Wales still live on in the crumbling castles and commotes of Hywel Dda, “the Good“.

 In the centuries which have slowly passed since I was sealed in this world, there are few sights which cheer me more than the soaring mountains of northern Wales. Turn your eyes to the eagles’ eyries and there, stone circles, walls and castles catch your straining glimpse. For in Wales it is not town life which predisposes the populace but places picked from the hillsides, remote and unforgiving.Those names conjure times I recall even more freshly than the few stones which now feature there: Castell-y-Bere, Cricieth, Carndochan – halls of the princes whose lands these once were. But one above all rises in emotion high and legend long, loyally keeping guard over the hearts of the people: Dinas Emrys, the hill of Ambrosius. The Mound of the Magician, Merlin – Myrddin Emrys.

I can tell you of magic marvels here at this mountain place, biding its time as the burgh of Beddgelert, for I saw these things happen. Where now a tumbled tower tottering, once a fine keep – the finest in the mountains – fit for the Sycharth-singing salutation of our fellow Iolo Goch, had he lived in those times. But friends I burrow further back and bide with Vortigern who did a city buildeth here when from the Saxons he retreated.

Vortigern the valiant was so advised as to build a citadel so strong that none so serving would with soldiers take it. But boulders built blew down and the maths of masons could not that castle master. Each time they built it, each time that hill would eke out its substance and tumbling it fell down.

Anguished, Vortigern sought solace from advisers and action demanded. And so they said that strength would come only from the spilled blood of a small boy, sacrificed on this sparse hill. I recall well how that boy stood up to our sire strong and would not his blood-spill let. “For I am Ambrosius, artful and astute – and I alone can assist you at this hour”.

Vortigern, as I recall, with volition vented thus: “tell me Ambrosius, answer me now and advise me of my path”. And Ambrosius said with solemnity stateful: “the cause of the crumbling lies in the clods. Below these boulders is a pool of brown waters where deep down two dragons bout in battle eternal as placed there by Lord Lludd Llaw Erient. And the red dragon shall defeat the white as Vortigern shall vanquish the Saxons.”

And so it is that in Wales the dragon red is in heraldry hailed as the high standard of those who Cwmraeg speak. But history tells us that Vortigern well vanquished was and in the valleys the Britons by reduced circumstance fell amongst themselves in petty squabbles and fighting.

The Welsh, the true people of Britain, languished warring for centuries as brothers wielded sword against brother and many thus were killed. In their ceaseless combat, the cold knights of Wales may in themselves be those dragons compelled for ever to fight each other as Britain round them falls.

So now at Dinas Emrys only eerie silence assaults the ears and the pool in which those dragons fought is but a miry marsh muzzling in the moss of that Welsh hill.

In stones it stands there still

By Merlin’s magic blessed

In the cold and dampening chill

A nation’s legend nests

Image of keep at Dinas Emrys

Another view of the keep at Dinas Emrys, the hill of Ambrosius

Image of enclosure at Dinas Emrys

This stone enclosure is of uncertain age. Built near the pool, some have suggested it was the original enclosure which held the dragons – but it may be a small dwelling or sheep pen.

Image of moss at Dinas Emrys

The clear, clean air of North Wales encourages moss of all kinds in the damp air.

Image of keep at Dinas Emrys

These footings, perhaps 6 feet high from the inside are all that remains of the mediaeval keep at Dinas Emrys.

A typical Welsh day, encapsualting the myth and mystery of the ancient Welsh people.

A typical Welsh day, encapsualting the myth and mystery of the ancient Welsh people.

Image of view down from Dinas Emrys

Dinas Emrys is protected on all sides by the hills. Here we look down on the area in which the pool resides which held the red dragon and the white.

Image of the keep at Dinas Emrys

The footings of the keep at Dinas Emrys – all that now remains of the mediaeval fort here.

Image of the pool at Dinas Emrys

The pool at Dinas Emrys in which the dragons fought

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Castles, Castles of Wales, King Arthur, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring Britain, Uncategorized, Welsh History, Welsh mythology